Dr Paul Ewing wrote the following history for the 30th anniversary of the IDE programme in 2011. We reproduce the piece here in full.
'On Monday 6 October 1980, after six years of planning, a unique course in design education began at the Royal College of Art. This pioneering, postgraduate course in Industrial Design Engineering was conceived by RCA Professors’ Misha Black and Frank Height and brought to fruition by Professors’ Hugh Ford and John Alexander from Imperial College. The course was jointly planned and run by Imperial College and the Royal College of Art and was the answer to Prince Albert’s ambition for the Great Exhibition of 1851. His vision was for a South Kensington Estate of colleges and museums and for them ‘to be a place where institutions of science and art can work together for the benefit of manufacturing industry’.
The course was conceived with the sole aim of improving the design of British consumer and industrial products by teaching graduate engineers how to design. The RCA provided the design expertise and studio space and Imperial the formal engineering lecture programme and workshop facilities for building functional prototypes. The students were to be funded by the 1851 Commission with profits of the Great Exhibition, along with RCA and Imperial bursaries.
The planning stopped - and the course started - when seven students assembled in the Level 3 Design Studio of the Royal College of Art on that October Monday morning, thirty years ago. With them were Professor Frank Height, RCA’s Course Director, Mike Starling, Len Wingfield, Imperial’s Course Director Dr Cyril Laming, and Paul Ewing. During this first year, the Joint Academic Board appointed Paul Ewing as the Coordinating Director.
Of the seven students, only four passed into the second year of which three, Andrew Douglas, Phil Seeney and Roy Tam, were awarded the Master of Design RCA and the Diploma of Imperial College, with Chris Lowe being awarded the Master of Design. These students survived the drastic change from the teaching methods used in engineering to the revolutionary methods of the new course, which married engineering skills with the expertise of the industrial designer. In 1981, four students joined the course, followed by eight in 1982, five in 1983 and eleven in 1984. The annual intake from the outset was set at fifteen to seventeen students and this figure was met from 1985 through to1988.
This new departure in the UK’s design educational methods caused great interest following the Royal Society of Arts Inaugural Lectures by Frank Height and Cyril Laming. Both design and engineering educators visited the first Degree Show in 1982 to view the work presented by the graduating students. Revolutionary working prototypes with supporting models were on view - ranging from a Yacht Rigging Cutter, a Sewing Machine to a CNC Lathe. Engineering Today and Design magazine both published major articles on the course and its output. In September 1983 Channel 4’s documentary Design Matters showed staff and students outlining the philosophy and teaching of the course. In 1985, the Centenary of the City and Guilds College and the Engineering Faculty of Imperial College were celebrated with the Technology 2000 Exhibition. The IDE students’ work, ranging from a folding bicycle, a fully enclosed motorcycle and domestic products controlled centrally from a home hub, figured highly. Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, showed great interest and highly praised the students work saying it should be used as a model for improving British products. Without doubt, this put IDE on the worldwide map. Interestingly, the folding bicycle is still in production today and leads the world in units sold.
In 1985 Frank Height retired and Ian Sinclair took over the reins. He was succeeded by Nick Butler in October 1987. Cyril Laming also retired and Dr Andrew Amis was appointed IC Director, with Paul Ewing continuing as Coordinating Director. This was a period of stabilisation and expansion, with Imperial College providing some studio space. Meanwhile, graduate students were busy making their mark in design consultancies and companies worldwide. A number of graduates were working for James Dyson developing cyclone cleaners and some had joined IDEO, a worldwide product design consultancy. Others had chosen academic careers and were teaching design in universities.
Staff changes brought David Carter to the RCA to head up the course from both the IC and RCA sides, and in 2000 John Drane took over the role alongside Imperial’s Roger Hibberd. The course was blossoming with the standard of work improving year on year. The student intake became more international with greater diversity in first-degree subjects and moves were also made to change the degrees awarded to an MA and MSc.
Tom Barker, a graduate of the course in 1991, was appointed professor in 2003. He set out to change the course’s name to reflect the changes for the 21st Century, increase student numbers year on year, introduce a global project, develop more project building space at Imperial and form a doctoral research programme. The course kept its IDE brand, but the ‘I’ was changed from ‘Industrial’ to ‘Innovation’ to account for the changing nature of the course’s projects. The global project involved taking all of the first year staff and students to work with staff and students from an overseas university for six weeks. They had to conceive, develop and manufacture a group of products and then sell them in their home countries. The Go Global project started in 2006 with a visit to China and in successive years the students worked in Thailand, China, Japan and Ghana.
Imperial College’s IDE space has expanded and moved to the Skempton Building. Imperial appointed their first Professor of Engineering Design, Peter Childs, who now heads up the course with Professor Miles Pennington from IDE, RCA. The intake in October 2010 will be thirty five, which demonstrates a five hundred percent increase in thirty years. IDE now has PhD and MPhil students, with a further three joining the doctoral research programme this October.
The future is exciting, with students now having very diverse, academic backgrounds resulting in an eclectic mix in the group projects. Finally, there are embryonic plans to launch an international nomadic project, making the Innovation, Design and Engineering course truly global.'